Sunday, November 1, 2009


“Back to the Future” trilogy director Robert Zemeckis surpassed himself in ways that he probably never imagined when he made “Forrest Gump.” Clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, this bittersweet PG-13 rated comedy about the epic misadventures of a slow-witted dolt from rural Alabama with a below-average I.Q. who lives through several milestone events in the 1960s received the Oscar for Best Picture of 1994. Not only did Zemeckis earn a Best Director Oscar, but also Tom Hanks’ took home the Academy statuette for Best Actor with his insightful, down-to-earth thesping. Forrest Gump is not the brightest bulb in the grid, but Hanks conveys this quality without ever stooping to histrionics. Above all, Hanks delivers a performance that has innocence and dignity intertwined. Moreover, “Forrest Gump” (**** out of ****)qualifies as Hanks’ best film.

“Forrest Gump” unfolds in Savannah, Georgia, as the eponymous character narrates the story of his life in a number of flashbacks. Indeed, two-thirds of the action takes place with Forrest on the bench relating his exploits to other people waiting for their bus. Zemeckis’ attention to details including the use of “People” magazine that the first woman is seen reading on the bench next to Forrest. The first time that we see young Forrest, he has just been fitted with a pair of leg braces at the doctor’s office while his mother (Sally Fields of “Norma Ray”) watches. She is determined to see to it that father-less Forrest gets to live as normal a life as possible. The school principal (Sam Anderson of “La Bamba”) fails to convince her that Forrest’s low I.Q. of 75 means that he should not attend regular school classes. Despite Forrest’s intellectual’s shortcomings, Mrs. Gump persuades the principal to permit Forrest to enroll in normal classes by having loud, noisy sex with him. The next time that we see young Forrest (newcomer Michael Humphreys) he hesitates about climbing aboard the school bus because he doesn’t know the bus driver and has been warned by his mother not to accept rides from strangers. The driver and Forrest introduce themselves to each other and he steps aboard because they are now no longer strangers. Forrest meets his first best friend Jenny Curran when she is the only student riding the bus who will let him sit beside her. Later, Forrest meets his second best friend on his way to military boot camp when Bubba makes room for him to sit beside him after others have turned him away.

Jenny and Forrest cultivate their friendship to the point that other students decide to attack Forrest. Initially, these obnoxious kids throw rocks at Forrest while he is walking home with Jenny. “Run, Forrest, run,” screams Jenny to our hero as the kids hurl more rocks and pursue him on their bicycles. Forrest takes off running and his braces disintegrate and he breaks into a loping stride that the kids on their bikes cannot match. The first chronological transition from young Forrest to Tom Hanks as Forrest occurs when the same kids—only older—attack Forrest and Jenny (Robin Wright of “The Princess Bride”) and try to run him down in their pick-up truck. Again, Forrest outruns them and scrambles through a practice scrimmage that Alabama football coach Bear Bryant (Sonny Shroyer of “Gator”) is holding. Forrest winds up in college, joins the football and scores touchdowns for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Forrest proves to be a sensation for the Tide and football is the first sport that he makes a name for himself. Later, he becomes a ping-pong ball champion in second-half of this witty spectacle. During his stay at Alabama, Forrest is exposed to the famous stance in the doorway by real-life Alabama governor George Wallace when the University of Alabama was integrated by African-American students. As one of the black students is entering the school, she drops a book and Forrest retrieves it on camera. Later, Forrest visits the White House, guzzles 15 Dr. Pepper sodas—his favorite soft drink--and gets to shake hands with the real President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy asks him how he feels, Forrest tells him that he has to pee.

Meanwhile, Jenny has grown up, left her abusive father to live with another person, and ends up in an all-girls’ school. Forrest shows up and beats up Jenny’s date because he thinks that the guy is getting rough with her. Jenny gives Forrest his first sexual experience. She cups his hand over her breast and he blows a gasket while Jenny’s roommate—apparently asleep—listens in horror as Forrest admits that he has messed up the roommate’s bathrobe. Jenny informs Forrest that she wants to become a folk singer like her idol Joan Baez. Forrest joins the U.S. Army and takes a furlough to Memphis, Tennessee, to see Jenny perform folk songs on stage. Forrest knows that Jenny got expelled from her college for posing nude in a ‘Girls of the South’ issue of Playboy magazine, but he isn’t prepared for what he sees when she performs in the nude singing a Bob Dylan song. When a spectator heckles Jenny, Forrest comes to her rescue.

In the military, Forrest meets his second best friend, Private Benjamin Buford 'Bubba' Blue (Mykelti Williamson of “Waiting to Exhale”) and Bubba regales Forrest throughout boot camp with stories about his own life and the part that shrimp has played in it. Indeed, shrimp is the food is mentioned frequently than any other kind of food in "Forrest Gump.” Bubba and Forrest are shipped off to Vietnam where they learn not to salute their commanding officer, Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise of “Of Mice and Men”), because he tells them that the Viet Cong will shoot him. The Viet Cong surprise Lt. Dan and his platoon during an offensive and confusion reigns as U.S. troops scramble for cover. Lt. Dan orders Forrest to run and true to his character, Forrest takes off hoofing it through the jungle and gets out of harm’s way before he realizes that he must go back for Bubba. Along the way, Forrest saves several of his comrades, including Lt. Dan who has been wounded. Forrest retrieves Bubba in the nick of time as the Air Force swoop in to napalm the enemy. Unfortunately, Bubba dies tragically in combat and his last words to Forrest are appropriately enough, "I just want to go home." Forrest catches some lead in his rear end and spends his time in the hospital on his belly, with bandages on his buttocks. During his medical confinement, Forrest indulges himself in his favorite snack—all the ice cream that he can eat. Once our hero recovers from his wound, he learns how to play ping-pong and becomes a champion.

Irony pervades “Forrest Gump.” Although he possesses the lowest I.Q. of everybody, Forrest discovers the true meaning of life, survives the horrors of combat, and emerges from Vietnam as well as the everyday hassle of life was the smartest character. Everybody from start to finish wants to pigeonhole Forrest Gump from the school principal to Lt. Dan, but Forrest surprises everybody in the long run. The military awards Forrest the Congressional Medal of Honor for his daring exploits in saving so many of his fellow soldiers during the Viet Cong ambush. On the commentary track, Zemeckis states that Jenny is a metaphor for America searching for itself. She represents the failure that so many people in America during the 1960s experienced. Eventually, Forrest runs into Jenny again when he attends a peace rally at the Washington, D.C., monument and they splash through the refractory pool into each others arms. Jenny takes up residence with Forrest after a particularly rough episode in her life, but she disappoints Forrest by leaving him without warning. The only way that Forrest can deal with his overwhelming grief is to hit the road running again and he jogs across America and becomes a celebrity. As the film enters its final quarter, we learn that Forrest has been sitting on the bench awaiting the right bus so that he can catch it and ride it to Jenny’s apartment. The woman sitting next to him informs him that Jenny’s apartment is located a mere six blocks away and Forrest takes off running toward it. He learns to his shock that Jenny—who has been working as a waitress--has had a baby, and she has named it Forrest. Initially, Forrest is dumbfounded until Jenny reveals that Forrest is the father. Forrest sits down with his son (Haley Joel Osment of “The Sixth Sense”) and they watch Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street.”

According to Zemeckis, "The writer, Eric Roth, departed substantially from the book. We flipped the two elements of the book, making the love story primary and the fantastic adventures secondary. Also, the book was cynical and colder than the movie. In the movie, Gump is a completely decent character, always true to his word. He has no agenda and no opinion about anything except Jenny, his mother and God.” Indeed, Zemeckis attributes most of the success of “Forrest Gump” to Roth’s screenplay. Nevertheless, Zemeckis adds several interesting touches to the film. For example, during the Vietnam combat sequences, the Viet Cong enemy are never shown. Zemeckis strives to show everything from Forrest Gump’s perspective and he violates this rule only when he intersperses vignettes of Jenny that Forrest narrates that he could never have known about in the greater scheme of things.

Significantly, the film pioneered some revolutionary techniques, such as inserting a live actor into historic archival footage of important events as well as enabling Oscar nominated actor Gary Sinise to appear convincing as a handicapped Vietnam veteran who has lost both legs in combat. If the structure of “Forrest Gump” is reminiscent of David Fincher’s recent opus “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” this is no surprise because Eric Roth penned scripts for both “Forrest Gump” as well as “Benjamin Button.” Roth got an Oscar for his adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel. Not surprisingly, “Forrest Gump” was awarded Oscars for best visual effects. Interestingly, Paramount Pictures produced this film for $55-million dollars and coined over $600 million dollars from it domestically as well as internationally. “Forrest Gump” was nominated for six other Oscars, including Best Cinematography, Best Make-up, and Best Original Score. Incredibly, John Travolta had the first crack at “Forrest Gump” and later admitted that he made a terrible mistake by passing up this juicy role.


Charles Bronson’s cougar-like presence, Elmore Leonard’s clever dialogue, and Richard Fleischer’s straight-faced helming makes “Mr. Majestyk” (**** out of ****) an entertaining, sometimes brutal knuckle-buster with some “3:10 to Yuma” thrown in for good measure. When Fleischer and company aren’t demonstrating the durability of Ford tough trunks, our happy-go-lucky mustached hero falls back on his unorthodox combat skills that he put to good use in Vietnam to battle the mob. Indeed, “Mr. Majestyk” exhibits a liberal mind-set grafted onto a meat & potatoes crime melodrama between a couple of titans. The villainous Al Lettieri packs menace like heat in his performance as a syndicate killer. Predictably, Bronson and Lettieri mix it up with satisfying results for action hungry spectators. The way that our hero takes care on the villain in the last quarter hour is literally ballistic. “Mr. Majestyk” shows Bronson at his most charismatic. He wears the dark golf-cap like he had been wearing it his entire life and he looks at home in his denims. Watching Charles Bronson beg to make a free phone call from an innocuous female storekeeper and then get another phone call with a two bottles of beer to go is a rare treat. This is Bronson as his most blue collar.

Shrewdly, scenarist Elmore Leonard and Fleisher align the stalwart hero with the fate of migrant workers and he becomes their champion, even though the rest of the action focuses on the live-and-let-die struggle between the principals. The opening scene establishes the film’s social consciousness roots. Mr. Majestyk has just hired a school bus load of migrants to harvest his 160 acres of watermelons. A carload of migrants wheel in after the bus departs for Majestyk’s farm and he leaves. Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal of “The High Chaparral”) requests the key to the washroom and the gas station attendant notifies them that both toilets are broken. Majestyk challenges the attendant that he is suggesting that he—Majestyk—broke the men’s toilet. The attendant informs him that his boss wants nothing to do with migrants and forbids him to let them use the toilet. Majestyk suggests that the migrants can use the trash can in front of the gas station, and the grievous gas station attendant capitulates and allows them to use the facilities. “Don’t be in there all day,” he snaps.

Chavez catches a ride with Majestyk out to his fields and Majestyk finds that another batch of workers is picking his melons for him. Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo of “The Stone Killer”) wears a Roy Rogers outfit and tells Majestyk that he only has to pay his workers a dollar twenty an hour instead of a dollar-forty like he has to pay the Hispanics. When Majestyk tries to clear the field of the cheap worthless labor, Kopas pulls out a shotgun and his buddy tells up a loud speaker to drown out Majestyk. Majestyk disarms Kopas, reverses the shotgun, pops him in the balls with the stock and then blasts the loud speaker. Before he sends Kopas and company running, he says, “You want my opinion, you’re in the wrong business.” No sooner has Majestyk ousted Bobby Kopas than the country sheriff shows up with an arrest warrant charging out hero with assault on Kopas.

At the county sheriff’s office, Detective Lieutenant McAllen (Frank Maxwell of “The Violators”) learns that Majestyk did nine months in Folsom Prison on an assault charge. A guy with a beer bottle attacked him in a bar and Majestyk left him the worst for wear. His wife divorced him while he was in the pen. Later, we learn that Majestyk drove trucks, fought in Vietnam, got captured but escaped with four enemy soldiers. He spent three years as a Ranger Instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia. Eventually, Majestyk encounters his adversary the notorious Frank Renda (Al Lettieri of “McQ”) in the county lock-up. At lunch, Renda refuses to eat his sausage and Majestyk asked for it. Renda dumps his food tray onto the floor and invites Majestyk to scourge for it. When Majestyk tries to bum a cigarette from Renda, an African-American inmate offers him a smoke and tells him that Renda is dangerous. Afterward, the sheriff’s department is transferring inmates and Renda—we learn that he has been arrested nine times with out a conviction—is slated to be taken to the county seat for pre-trial examination on a charge of first degree murder.

At the county seat, Renda’s gunmen, led by resourceful Gene Lundy (Taylor Lacher of “Final Chapter: Walking Tall”), hit the sheriff’s convoy, blow up a cruiser, and kill a number of deputies before things turn sour for them. During the ruckus, Majestyk orders the other convicts to remove the wounded as well as the dead deputies. He commandeers the bus with Renda still in cuffs and hauls ass for a remote safe haven. Renda assures Majestyk that he has no qualms against killing and has killed seven people. He promises to kill Majestyk if Majestyk refuses to make a deal with him. Majestyk is still worried about his melons and cuts a deal with McAllen to get his assault charges dropped in exchange for bringing in Renda. Majestyk calls Renda’s contact, Wiley (Lee Purcell of “Dirty Little Billy”) and she arrives to pick them up in her red Ford sedan. Renda thinks that he has made a deal with Majestyk, but our hero turns the tables on Renda and orders Wiley to drive to the authorities. Wiley slips Renda a gun from her purse. Renda and Majestyk struggle over it. Majestyk manages to escape from Renda and the villain’s people spirit him away to freedom and safety. Majestyk turns himself back into McAllen in Edna, Colorado, but Renda is far from satisfied. He is obsessed with killing Majestyk and orders his associate to get Kopas to drop the assault charges that he can go after him. Mind you, all of this occurs in the first 45 minutes!

“Mr. Majestyk” is the perfect starring role for Bronson who manages to be hard-knuckled but humorous. The scene where the angry syndicate killers obliterate the protagonist’s stacked watermelon makes for a neat metaphor for their plans for Majestyk. Fleischer does a good job of staging a shoot-out in broad daylight between the authorities and the villains at the crossroads of a small city. The scenes were the Ford truck vault over gullies and slam-bang through rough-hewn surroudings is fantastic! As usual, Leonard’s dialogue is wonderfully quirky. The scenery is spectacular and Linda Cristal serves as Bronson’s love interest. Charles Bernstein supplies a stout, flavorful orchestral score. Bronson devotees will savor the way that the villains bend the law like licorice to suits their devious ends. The supporting cast, including Lee Purcell, Paul Koslo, and Alejandro Rey, is first-class.